Hanceville property owners’ sewer lawsuit set for trial

Hanceville property owners’ sewer lawsuit set for trial

Source: http://www.cullmantimes.com, March 14, 2014
By: Tiffeny Owens

A lawsuit brought by seven Hanceville landowners against Hanceville Water Works and Sewer Board and the companies hired to run the waste water treatment plant is set to go to trial next month.

The property owners are suing over the alleged repeated dumping of raw sewage on their properties after overflows at the treatment plant’s discharge point in Mud Creek. The group is suing the water board and the three companies — Southwest Water Company, ADL, Inc. and Clearwater Solutions — the board hired to operate the plant. Former Hanceville city councilman and fired sewer co-manager Sally Alexander was also named as a defendant in the 2008 complaint.

Cullman County Circuit Judge Martha Williams will preside over the trial set for April 21. The plaintiffs are charging the defendants with negligence, private nuisance, trespass and wanton conduct and demand a jury trial.

At issue is who is responsible for repeated overflows of raw sewage into Mud Creek, the sewer plant’s discharge point, and onto adjacent properties. The plaintiffs claim that not only was the Hanceville sewer board and Alexander as co-manager of the plant responsible but also the consultant companies the board hired to advise the plant’s operations. Southwest Water Company, operating as Novus Utilities at the time, worked at the plant from 1999 to 2003 and then again from 2007 to 2008. The board then hired ADL from 2005 to 2008 and later Clearwater Solutions from 2008 to present.

Overflows had occurred for a number of years, but in 2005, they continued to get worse, with the frequency increasing to as much as twice a week, the plaintiffs allege. In January 2008, 2 million gallons of raw, untreated sewage was discharged into the creek, attorneys for the plaintiff said. Toilet paper and condoms washed up along the banks of the creek and toxic fecal coliforms were deposited there, prompting the posting of biohazards signs on the plaintiffs’ properties, the attorneys allege.

After repeated overflows, the system was placed on a five-year moratorium forbidding any further sewer expansion. The board has since taken steps to upgrade the plant, taking out a $4 million construction bond to quadruple its processing capacity from roughly a 1 million gallons a day to 4 million gallons a day currently. It has spent close to another $2 million in improvements to two sewer mains where waste water is collected.

The sewer system has since come back into compliance with ADEM standards, and the moratorium has been lifted.

“The facts in this case are mountainous. The board hired you to do a job and it depended on you to do it. You just can’t separate yourself from this debacle,” said Eddie Jackson, attorney for the plaintiffs during the Nov. 18 hearing. “No one wants to live downstream from this plant. They can’t let their kids and grandkids or their dogs go outside to play because they’re afraid to get out into this mess.”

The defendants’ attorneys argue that while their clients were paid to advise and consult the board on how to improve operations at the treatment plant, the board and the city of Hanceville ultimately own and are, therefore, responsible for its employees and the plant itself.

“This was not a situation where the third party came in and created this problem,” said attorney Patrick Patronas, representing Southwest Water Company, during a Nov. 18 hearing.

Attorney Forrest Adams II representing ADL said his client did not provide personnel that was qualified or certified to run the treatment plant, and furthermore, it did not have the authority to operate the plant.

“When ADL came in, the plant was already in a disarray, and it did everything it could to try to help make the situation better,” Adams said at the hearing.

ADL is asking it be dismissed from the suit because the plaintiffs have not provided testimony that its conduct breached the engineering standard of care.

Adams said ADL proposed million-dollar upgrades and suggested the board seek grant funding through the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to improve the plant, however the board did not heed the consultant’s advice.

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